My Favorite Credit Card Rewards
by Matt Frankel, CFP® | Updated Sept. 16, 2021 - First published on June 20, 2019
Here's what three of our contributors look for in rewards credit cards.
There are all sorts of credit card rewards and perks available, and the best ones for you depend on your personal situation. To help get you thinking about some of the credit card rewards that could make the most sense for you, we asked three of our contributors to talk about their favorites, and here's what they had to say.
A high-end perk that's well worth the cost for frequent travelers
Matt Frankel, CFP: There are several credit card perks I value highly as a frequent traveler, from airline miles to free checked bags to TSA Pre-Check reimbursement. However, I have to say that my favorite credit card reward is one that doesn't come cheap: airport lounge access.
Credit cards that offer lounge access tend to have some pretty hefty annual fees, typically $450 or more. However, I feel that frequent travelers can get their money's worth and then some.
If you aren't familiar, airport lounges have amenities that vary slightly, but the general idea is that travelers can get free food (ranging from light snacks to a full meal, depending on the lounge), free drinks including beer, wine, and cocktails, and a quiet place to relax or get some work done. Some even have nice shower facilities, which alone is worth quite a bit after a long-haul flight.
The way I figure, on the average two-hour layover, I'll typically spend anywhere from $20 to $50 on food and drinks. Double that if my wife is with me (I can bring a guest into the lounges with my card). A quiet place to get some work done with reliable and fast Wi-Fi adds even more value. I use my lounge access at least 10 times per year, on average, so I estimate this benefit alone justifies the annual fee of my high-end travel credit card.
All that said, before you sign up for a card with this luxe benefit, make sure you'll be able to take full advantage of it. Look into which lounges you'll get access to and see if they're located at the airports (and terminals!) you fly out of often.
A simple reward that keeps paying off for years to come
Christy Bieber: I've had many credit cards over the years, all of which offered various perks ranging from statement credits for Uber rides to reimbursement for airline incidental fees or TSA Pre-Check. While I've used some of these perks and appreciated them (especially TSA Pre-Check), I only fly maybe once or twice a year, so the travel-related benefits don't help me that much. And I often forget which cards offer which perks to take advantage of.
But there's one reward that always pays me back: cash back deposited into my investment accounts.
I've had two credit cards in succession that both pay generous cash back for everyday purchases. The card I now have also offers bonus cash back for dining out, which we do a lot. Because these cards give me the option to have my cash back deposited directly into brokerage accounts every month, I can put the money straight to work helping me build wealth.
While taking advantage of other credit cards perks can be a nice bonus, I'll always choose the card that allows me to earn the most in cash-back rewards. I prioritize that over every other cardholder benefit. That cash back effectively turns purchases into a tool to grow my investments, and because we charge everything, we spend a lot on our credit cards, so it's far-and-away the most valuable reward any credit card company could offer me.
Rewards that offer big savings on expensive travel
I like travel points because they're the most affordable way to book luxurious travel that would normally cost thousands of dollars, such as business-class international flights and stays at expensive resorts. The one drawback of traditional travel points (airline miles and hotel points) is that they're tied to a single brand, which limits your redemption options. Transferable points don't have that problem, because you can use them at any of the reward program's transfer partners.
This type of reward fits my lifestyle perfectly, because a good portion of my travel is international. I don't mind flying coach for shorter domestic flights, but on international flights, there's a world of difference between economy and business class. A business-class ticket means much better food options, free drinks, and more spacious seating, with many airlines offering lie-flat seats that make it easier to sleep. When you're going to be on a plane for eight hours or longer, that added comfort is well worth the price.
Given that business-class tickets often cost between $1,500 and $3,000, buying them several times per year would put a serious dent in my savings. That's why I like to rack up transferable travel points and save them for international flights, as those are my biggest travel expenses. And because my points are transferable, there's almost always one airline where I can use my points.
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